JOK Notebook

Letting Sleeping Bears Lie

Essay 1995 on 熊 (bear) is now out, and as usual, writing it taught me a great deal about the subject matter—everything from Ainu views of bears to shogi moves and unexpected uses of yak hair. On top of that, I found out about aspects of Japanese that were new to me.

For instance, what do you think this phrase means:

横になる (よこになる)

a. to lie on one’s side
b. to lie down (and rest)
c. to be upside down
d. to find yourself in Yokohama

I'll block the answer with a preview of essay 1995:

b. 横になる (よこになる) means "to lie down (and rest)." Although 横 primarily represents "side," it can also mean “horizontal,” and that seems to be the sense in this phrase. In other words, one can lie on one's back, stomach, or side, and 横になる will still apply.

I found the phrase in this sentence, which features our star kanji, 熊 (くま: bear):

When bears sleep or lie down, their positions depend on whether they want to get rid of heat or conserve it.

眠る (ねむる: to sleep); 姿勢 (しせい: position); 熱 (ねつ: heat); 逃す (のがす: to lose); 保つ (たもつ: to keep); よる (to depend on)

I had no idea that was the case! What an informative sentence! 

I also like the syntax of the second phrase, as it's concise and easy to understand.

Here is a better look at the first page of essay 1995:

It presents bears in the two ways in which the Japanese perceive them—both cute and cuddly and brutally aggressive. The book featured on the bottom of that page is about bear attacks, and the Amazon synopsis of that work includes this sentence about the author:


自身 (じしん: self); 過去 (かこ: the past); -回 (-かい: counter for occurrences); 襲う (おそう: to attack, shown here in its passive voice); 遭遇 (そうぐう: encounter, meeting with (e.g., accident)); 数知れない (かずしれない: countless; innumerable)

The yomi of 襲う (おそう: to attack) sounds like oso, Spanish for "bear"!

I intentionally haven't defined the blue word here, leaving it for another quiz. If 目 is "eye" and 撃 means "attack," what could 目撃 mean:

a. something emotionally painful to see
b. a literal attack on the eyes
c. witnessing
d. an upwelling of tears

Photo Credit: Keiko Fosterling

Kumamon, the mascot of 熊本県 (くまもとけん: Kumamoto Prefecture).

Unfortunately, no one writes his name with 熊.

c. 目撃 (もくげき: eye + attack) means "witnessing; observing." It applies to unusual sightings.

Note that the short Amazon sentence contained two kanji meaning "attack."

I'm intrigued by the last term in the sentence—数知れず. The -ず is an archaic negative ending for verbs, corresponding to -ない in contemporary Japanese. The verb 知れる (しれる) means "to become known," so the word breaks down this way:

数知れない (かずしれない: countless, innumerable)     number + not to be known

Very cool!

On the topic of 知, I recently heard this word:

無知の知 (むちのち: the wisdom to realize one's own ignorance)
     ignorance (1st 2 kanji) + wisdom

If only there were enough of this type of wisdom in the world to counter all the ignorance!

By the way, here's how the whole Amazon sentence translates:

In the past, he has personally been attacked eight times and has come across countless bears.

自身 (じしん: self); 過去 (かこ: the past); -回 (-かい: counter for occurrences); 襲う (おそう: to attack, shown here in its passive voice); 遭遇 (そうぐう: encounter, meeting with (e.g., accident)); 目撃 (もくげき: witnessing); 数知れない (かずしれない: countless; innumerable)

One more thing while we're on the subject of life-and-death situations. If 生き (いき) is "living" and 抜く (ぬく) is "to extract; omit; surpass; overtake; draw out; unplug," what do you think this term could mean:

生き抜く (いきぬく)

a. to withdraw from life
b. to pull the plug on a dying patient
c. to kill oneself
d. to survive

This 1940 woodblock print by 竹内栖鳳 (たけうち   せいほう: 1864–1942, in which the last two kanji are non-Joyo) is called Bear in Snow or「雪中熊図」, most likely read as せっちゅうゆうず.

d. 生き抜く (いきぬく) means "to survive." Although the autonomous verb 抜く can mean everything I indicated, the suffix -抜く means "to do to the end." It might be easier to see the -抜く in this case as being like the “through” in “to pull through” (e.g., an illness or a difficult situation). 

The verb 生き抜くappears in essay 1583 on 沖 (offshore) as 生きぬいた in a title that translates as People Who Survived the Battle of Okinawa.

Recently, Joy o' Kanji has presented quite a few hairy life-or-death situations, with "hairy" being the operative word in the newest essay!


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